The citation reads:
The President of the United States takes pride in presenting the MEDAL OF
Sergeant James E. Johnson
United States Marine Corps
for service set forth in the following
"For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and
beyond the call of duty while serving as a Squad Leader in a Provisional
Rifle Platoon composed of Artillery men and attached to Company J, Third
Battalion, Seventh Marines, First Marine Division (Reinforced), in action
against aggressor forces at Yudam-Ni, Korea on 2 December 1950. Vastly
outnumbered by a well-entrenched and cleverly concealed enemy force wearing
the uniforms of friendly troops and attacking his position, Sergeant Johnson
unhesitatingly took charge of his platoon in the absence of the leader and,
exhibiting great personal valor in the face of a heavy barrage of hostile
fire, coolly proceeded to move about among his men, shouting words of
encouragement and inspiration and skillfully directing their fire. Ordered
to displace his platoon during the fire fight, he immediately placed himself
in an extremely hazardous position from which he could provide covering fire
for his men. Fully aware that his voluntary action meant either certain
death or capture to himself, he courageously continued to provide effective
cover for his men and was last observed in a wounded condition
single-handedly engaging enemy troops in close hand-to-hand fighting. By his
valiant and inspiring leadership, Sergeant Johnson was directly responsible
for the successful completion of the platoon's displacement and the saving
of many lives. His dauntless fighting spirit and unfaltering devotion to
duty in the face of terrific odds reflect the highest credit upon himself
and the United States Naval Service."
That's the way the citation reads. Those of us who knew Jim Johnson well,
can tell, as Paul Harvey says, the rest of the story.
The citation stresses that Jim had the skills required by a platoon
commander down cold. He should have. Just eighteen months before Jim had
been a Second Lieutenant in the U. S. Marine Corps and completing his
mandatory nine months of training with the 5th Basic School Class before
departing into the Fleet Marine Force as a regular, unrestricted officer.
Jim, as did 248 of his peers that year, had come from the ranks. Many of us
had been Staff Non-Commissioned Officers, and Jim must have been one of the
younger of the officers commissioned. Odds are that he had attained the rank
of Sergeant in an enlisted status, although I have no exact memory of that.
I look at his grainy picture among my other classmates from the 5th Basic,
and do not recognize him. That was not the Jim Johnson I knew.
1948 was a tough year to try to convince any college graduate that a
commission in the U. S. Marine Corps would be a great career move. Won't
bore you with statistics, but in order to fill the billets then existing in
the Fleet Marine Force the Marine Corps turned, as it always did, to what
was called the "Meritorious NCO" program. In my case, recommendation to
commissioned rank under this program was my eleventh. When promoted to
Second Lieutenant, I was, from my date of rank 4 June, 1948, seven months
shy of my 21st birthday. I couldn't go into a bar and legally order a drink,
nor could I be married without the permission of one of my parents. But I'd
served during World War II and the North China Campaign, and was about to
get my first hash-mark when I became an officer. The reason I cite the
foregoing is that it was typical of my classmates in the 5th Basic.
The Jim Johnson I knew had a quirky little smile on his face at all times,
and you always knew that he was planning some deviltry or other on one of
his classmates. Yet it was impossible to be but briefly annoyed with him. He
had not a mean bone in his body. Mischievous, yes. Lots of them. Every month
we students were forced to complete what we called a "F____ Your Buddy"
list. This meant that we had to rate from #1 to the low man on the totem
pole our various classmates on various personality and professional
characteristics. Every man jack of us hated this process, but there was no
choice. Without a doubt Jim Johnson emerged #1 or very close to it in the
popularity ratings. Some of the other matters, most having to do with off
duty foibles, I'm afraid that Jim would have rated toward the top--or the
bottom, if you want to look at it that way. We took turns being Fire Team,
Squad, and Platoon Leaders of our classmates during field exercises. These
exercises gave us a chance to strut our stuff, or lack of it. Jim was a
standout. When I read the citation above, I can just see Jim running about
shouting encouragement, while a light snow is falling on Samsky's Ridge, as
an acting platoon leader, with that grin on his face, in the face of "blank"
fire from an Aggressor Squad hidden on a ridge 100 meters to our front. That
was what he was credited with doing that black night at Yudam-Ni when he
joined the many other Marine heroes who had gone to that great Marine
Barracks in the sky. That he would die so that his fellow Marines could live
was typical of the man.
But how, you ask, could a man like that have been deprived of commissioned
rank and returned to the enlisted ranks? Well, the Basic School had a
system. You were literally graded on everything you did, from the way your
pack was hung on your bunk, to whether your fingernails were clean. There
was constant pressure to perform. Most of us laughed it off and recognized
it for what it was-- to see how much pressure we could take.
One of our DDIs, sort of a Drill Instructor for Second Lieutenants and I had
been together for three years prior to our meeting again at Quantico. We
were friends long before I had attained commissioned rank. We sat at the bar
in the O Club one Saturday afternoon at old Waller Hall, an ornate,
impressive, and historic watering place for years for Marine Officers. In
the process we engaged in some serious drinking, and I chided him gently
about the "chit" system, and we discussed the entire Basic School system of
harassment thoroughly, and departed later that afternoon somewhat the worse
for wear, but fast friends. The following Monday morning I went to my
mailbox, and I could see him closely observing me while sitting at the DDI
table at the back of our classroom. As I pulled my mail out, a "65
"Unsatisfactory Chit" fluttered to the floor signed by my old friend. As I
picked it up I could see the broad grin on his face as I read it. Seems that
I had dust on the top of my wall locker that morning. Had it not have been
that it would have been something else. And that's how the game was usually
played. I held up my well deserved "Bad Chit," shook it at him, and grinned
Bad chits, however, were not always a matter of grinning. One of my
classmates tied a string around a dud 60 mm mortar round and dragged it into
an assemblage of his classmates and instructors who were critiquing the
mortar shoot we'd just completed. The Instructors took umbrage at such
inconsiderateness, and the student officer was gone like a bad dream the
following morning. Our course work was divided into five subject areas. Two
of the areas that required satisfactory completion in all sub-areas were,
understandably, map reading and infantry weapons. Not a few of my classmates
were washed out simply because they could or would not learn nomenclature
and functioning of various and sundry weapons. As I recall, those who had
come from the Air Wing had the most problems in these areas. Obviously,
those of us coming from an infantry background were way ahead of the game.
One of the beauties of being an officer back in the 40s was that your word
was considered your bond. You could get anything you wanted anywhere you
wanted by just signing a chit. If you've read much of Kipling and the 19th
Century Indian Army, the system was the same. Unfortunately, one of the
places you could sign "chits" was Waller Hall, mentioned earlier. This lead
to a few of my classmates ending up with a larger bar bill than their
salaries for the month. This caused not a few to be dropped from
consideration for eventual promotion to Commandant of the Marine Corps. My
recollection is that Jim Johnson had problems along this line. But he was
not alone. We chided him about it, but all we'd get back was a big grin, and
a promise to reform. Next month.
No one could stay mad at Jim for long. He was too good natured. But each of
his escapades added another bad chit to the pile. And there would come the
time when the accumulation....
Then there was the officer, a bit of the worse for wear, who departed
Washington, D.C. one Sunday night by train in plenty of time to make his
0800 Monday morning formation. Problem was that he slept through the station
at Quantico, and didn't awake until the conductor was shouting his "All off
for Richmond." A definite faux pas, that. By the time he had worked his way
back to Quantico early that afternoon the Marine Corps had made up its mind.
This was not a first for this particular young officer, and the Marine Corps
recommended that he find a line of work that didn't require him to ride
My memory is that about a month before graduation, Jim Johnson disappeared.
What probably happened is that he was called in and notified that he had
exceeded the number of bad chits or whatever we were graded on, and that his
commission was to be revoked. I'd guess that he was given the option of
returning to the ranks as a Staff Sergeant, or being discharged. Jim was but
one of the 25% of my classmates who didn't make it to graduation. But he
came very close.
I don't recall seeing him again until probably the night or possibly the
night before he was killed. I'd been told he was at the Chosin Reservoir by
a classmate who had talked to him, and that he had joined the Marine Corps
Reserves after his commission was revoked and been recalled to active duty
with the rest of our Reserves during the summer of '50 when we needed them
desperately. When I saw him I recognized him at 50 paces, and went over to
say hello. Same old Jim, same grin, same good cheer that belied the fact
that we were operating in temperatures of 35 below zero at night and some of
the days hardly warmed up at all.
And so, Jim, you climbed the hill and found your glory and went to glory all
in one fell swoop. How typical of you, my friend. And let it not be said
that the Marine Corps wasted one red cent on training you to be a Platoon
Commander. They, and the taxpayers got their money back in spades, that
freezing night of December 1, 1950. You were a superb Platoon Commander, as
good as they get, and that fact, as opposed to all the "Bad Chits" you
acquired in Basic School is as a mountain to a molehill.
The situation at Yudam Ni was not one that we could always withdraw our dead
for proper burial. I know that Marines usually say that we always withdraw
our dead. That's baloney for civilian consumption only. I was told, although
the citation is moot on the point, that Jim's body was not recovered.
We have a saying in the Marine Corps that we fight on the shoulders of those
who went valiantly before. Marines don't fight for motherhood, the flag, or
apple pie. Our sense of history and those who preceded us is ingrained. We
fight for our buddies, for our Corps, and because we always have fresh in
our memories those who went before to show us the way. At every Marine Corps
Birthday we stand and chant the liturgy of the famous battles that Marines
have fought in for the past 225 years. One of these is always the "Chosin
Reservoir." So we stood on the shoulders of Marines like Jim Johnson in Viet
Nam 15 years later, and Grenada, and Panama, in Desert Storm and in Somalia.
And what shoulders to stand on!
Copyright 2002 Dr. R. E. Sullivan. All rights reserved. No part of this document may be
copied, faxed, electronically transmitted, or in any other manner duplicated
without express written permission of the author.